So you've made the decision to upgrade your grandfather's old computer, in part to reduce or at least ease the long-distance tech support challenge you face in helping him. What computer should you buy?
The first question you should ask, is Windows vs Mac? Windows-based computers are by far the market leaders, with more makes and models to choose from, and more software programs. Apple's Mac computers offer greater ease of use, and a lower likelihood of acquiring future viruses. While the decision between the two is frequently considered a near religious question, in this case we think the decision comes down to just two questions: What is your grandfather already familiar with? And which do you feel more comfortable supporting remotely?
Given the market share dominance of Microsoft Windows-based machines, and the greater support challenges they offer, most of the rest of this article will focus on them.
What will the computer be used for? In our case, web-browsing and e-mail were the current principle uses, with a smattering of other applications like word-processing, spreadsheets, and income tax preparation. Virtually every new computer sold today is capable of handling the programs for these types of uses, so we opted for low-end models, in terms of cpu power. Other characteristics, rather than raw power, should drive your specific choice. (The only exception to this would be if your intended recipient is an avid gamer, in which case you're looking at a whole different category of machines!)
Portability, ease of setup. You might not think that portability is an important condsideration for your grandfather's computer, but a single-unit, self-contained solution like a laptop computer is not only more portable than a desktop computer, it is far easier to set-up. This is especially true if you plan on shipping the computer and counting on your grandfather to set it up, rather than delivering and installing it yourself. Portability is also be important if he ever wants to send it back to you for "hands-on" tech support... As a result, we went with a laptop machine, rather than a desktop unit.
Screen size. A bright, big screen is a necessity for those with older eyes. With laptops, many makers now offer a glossy variant (e.g. HP's BrightView, Dell's TrueLife) that they claim provides higher resolution. In our experience it does, but at the cost of significantly greater glare. Only select oneof these if you're certain that glare from doors, windows, or lighting won't be an issue, or if watching DVD movies will be a major use of the computer. In our case, we went with 15-inch versions of the less-expensive, non-glossy screens, and were happy with the result.
Keyboard. A good feeling, easy to read keyboard. Most keyboards today have at least an adequate feel, especially if you avoid those on ultra-lightweight portables. More important we discovered, is keyboard legibility. It turns out that black keyboards with white lettering are easier to read than white or gray keys with black lettering.
Accessory ports. Most computers come with an Ethernet port - necessary for a wired connection to a broadband connection (DSL or cable), an RJ-11 phone jack for a built-in modem, and one or more USB ports. Some also offer memory card reader slots for downloading digital camera files, and a Firewire (IEEE 1394) port for downloading digital video files from a camcorder. Less common are the older parallel and serial ports, typically used by old printers, and some PDAs. Look for a computer that has the ports you will need, but don't spend more for a machine that has additional ports unless you think you will make use of them. One exception: you can never have too many USB ports! A printer and an external mouse will tie up two in a hurry. However if you need more, it is simple and inexpensive to add a USB hub -- essentially a multi-headed USB extension cord that additional devices can plug into.
Memory. RAM. More is better. Many low-end machines come with 256 or 512MB of memory. Memory chip prices have plummeted, so this is an inexpensive way to visibly improve the performance of your computer. In our test machines, going from 256MB to 768MB (adding a 512MB chip) turned a sluggish device into a snappy performer. In fact, given a choice of spending a few dollars more for a faster processor, or more memory, we'd opt to spend it for memory or on a bigger, brighter screen.
Hard drive disk space. Will the computer be heavily used for photos, video, or music? If so, bigger is better. If not, a typical 40GB+ hard drive will provide adequate room.
CD/DVD burner/drive. Most laptops now come with combination CD/DVD drives, that allow the user to play both CDs and DVDs. Some come with burners that also allow the user to save material on various varieties of CDs/DVDs. Are they necessary? Yes, if the user wants to use CDs/DVDs for back-ups (a good idea), or if they want to be able to make their own audio, photo, or video disks.
Built-in wireless. Most laptops include this capability. Is it necessary for Grandpa? Wireless adds another level of potential tech support calls, but may be the easiest way to enable access with a new broadband connection. In one of our test installations, the highspeed cable modem was not located near the desired computer location, so we added an inexpensive wireless router to solve the problem.
Similarity. Given that you are the primary tech support resource, you might want to pick a computer that's identical or highly comparable to a machine you have at home. (Maybe it's time to get a new computer for the kids, or for the kitchen?)
Remote access. If you think it might be nice to remotely see and fix the remote computer, opt for Windows XP Pro rather than XP Home Edition. More on this later.
Included apps. Generally not a reason to select a specific machine, unless all other things are the same.
Price. No need to break the bank. Look for something on sale that meets your requirements from the criteria described above. In our case, we spent more on the travel to set up the computers, than we paid for the machines.